History Answers the Inexplicable: Interview with Madeline HsuHistorians in the News
tags: racism, immigration, model minority, migration, Asian American History
Shirley Lung is a PhD candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Her research is in the areas of religion, immigration, and race/ethnicity. Her work has been funded by the Global Religion Research Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, the Taiwan Fellowship, and the Louisville Institute. She has published in Religions.
This is the third installment of Freedom Education, a seven-part series of conversations between graduate students and luminary scholars. Presented in partnership with Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, this series considers reading, learning, and writing as politics. Read series editors Stuart Schrader and Nathan Connolly’s introduction here.
Dr. Madeline Hsu is a foundational scholar of migration studies and Asian American studies. She is professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and served as director of the Center for Asian American Studies for eight years (2006–14). She was president of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (2018–21) and is presently representative-at-large for the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas. Her books, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China, 1882–1943 (2000) and The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (2015), have awards from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, and the Association for Asian American Studies.
I spoke with Dr. Hsu a week after the tragic Atlanta shootings in March 2021. Our conversation reflects how history helps us understand present-day events.
Shirley Lung (SL): The Atlanta mass shooting occurred one week ago. But there are many other instances of anti-Asian violence.
We’re in a moment of Asian American activism and visibility in terms of the news media. That activism itself focuses on pan-ethnic Asian American solidarity. I feel that many of the most visible and vocal Asian American activists in this moment are second generation, college educated, and the like. It’s a type of people that diverges—sometimes quite steeply—from that of the Atlanta victims, for instance.
How can activism that centers pan-ethnic Asian American solidarity take into account social-class divides? How can more Asian and Asian American voices of different class backgrounds be heard?
Madeline Hsu (MH): Asian Pacific Americans is a census category. It does not reflect the lived experiences, in fact, of many ethnic Asian persons living in the United States, who are likely to identify much more strongly with people who share the same languages, the same sort of foodways, the same ethnic origins.
But it is politically a necessity, in part because of the racial projects at work. These killings were racially motivated.
Apart from Chinese or possibly Koreans—where profiling might be more targeted today because of the difficult US relationships with these homelands—a lot of times, racial profiling is based on physiognomy, how you look. During the past year, it’s been very evident that East Asians are being profiled for these attacks. People launching the attacks are not paying attention to whether or not people are actually Chinese. I know there have been some Latinos who also have been attacked because of their appearance.
Despite this necessity for solidarity at a moment of increasing anti-Asian attacks, there are also a couple of real barriers. One is the “model minority” stereotype. Another is the inability to register that Asians are still targeted as a race. This inability has been an issue within historian circles; I know other colleagues who have had parallel experiences. Fellow intellectuals will describe the killings as not racially motivated. Even people who are committed to issues of social justice or work on racial inequality don’t recognize this instance of anti-Asian racism. That kind of illegibility—this lack of understanding of the particular ways in which Asians and Asian Americans have been racialized—produces a barrier to solidarity.
Another challenge is the quantification of record keeping. We are 6 percent or 7 percent of the national population, and in many areas our populations will be even smaller. This means that just to have the numbers to register that these attacks are a serious set of ongoing problems requiring attention can be difficult.
It is critical that Asians and Pacific Islanders try to mobilize together. We need enough heft to leverage more attention and to be taken seriously.
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